“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, The PLayfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. In this column, Larry reports on FOOL FOR LOVE, OLD TIMES, CLEVER LITTLE LIES, THE GIN GAME, BARBECUE, ECLIPSED, AMAZING GRACE, ROTHSCHILD & SONS, THE CHRISTIANS and CLOUD NINE.

Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, currently burning up the stage in a revival at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is classic Shepard, and this new production makes the case for the play’s being one of this great playwright’s best.

Set in a motel room on the edge of the Mohave Desert, it tells the story of Mae and Eddie, a couple who can’t live with each other but can’t live without each other. Eddie, a rodeo cowboy, has disappeared from Mae’s life one too many times, and she has started a new life in a new town when Eddie shows up once again, hoping to rekindle the fire they once had. She is determined to resist him this time; but she can’t. I won’t give away the Big Reveal near the end of the play about who they really are – but suffice it to say, it’s a doozy.

As Mae, Nina Arianda confirms her status as the finest stage actress of her generation, and Sam Rockwell is terrific as well as her errant cowboy. Also good are Tom Pelphrey as a man who shows up to pick Mae up for a date and finds himself in the middle of her tug of war with Eddie, and Gordon Joseph Weiss as a mysterious old man who sits off to the side. He’s part of the Big Reveal at the end.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

As is Roundabout’s revival of Pinter’s Old Times, at the American Airlines Theatre, about a couple, Deeley and Kate, who are visited by a mysterious women from their past named Anna. Who is she, why has she come back into their lives, and what does she want?

The play’s a little too elliptical and obscure (even for Pinter); but nevertheless it’s fascinating, played with wonderful subtlety by Clive Owen as Deeley, Kelly Reilly as Kate and, especially, by Eve Best as Anna, under the subtly inventive direction of Douglas Hodge.

Old Times hasn’t had a major production in NYC since the original one in I think about 1971, so it’s not as familiar to theatregoers as Pinter classics like The Homecoming and Betrayal. Here’s your chance to see it.

At the start of Clever Little Lies, by Joe DiPietro, at the Westside Theatre, a young man reveals to his father after they have played tennis that he is having a torrid affair. He pleads with his dad not to tell his mother, but she wheedles it out of him and goes all out in trying to persuade him not to chuck his family for this new flame. As is typical, Marlo Thomas and Greg Mullavey, as the parents, are actually old enough to be the grandparents; but that said, they do a fine job. Thomas is particularly strong as a mother determined to prevent her son from making a Big Mistake.

Clever Little Lies is a throwback to the sort of comedy which appeared regularly on Broadway 50 years ago. Although it’s expertly constructed, and well-staged by David Saint, it seems rather thin on a contemporary stage. Nevertheless, it’s a crowd-pleaser if you’re Of a Certain Age and long for the glory days of early Neil Simon.

D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Gin Game, at the Golden Theatre, is another revival, this one with a black cast, James Earl Jones and Cecily Tyson as Weller Martin and Fonsia Dorsey, who live in a run-down old folks’ home. Weller is a cranky old coot who is obsessed with gin rummy. Clearly, no one will play with him anymore – until, that is Fonsia arrives at the home. She proceeds to win every game, which absolutely infuriates Weller. You would think that a play which consists of little more than a few hands of gin would seem rather thin. You would be wrong. Subtly, Coburn uses the card game as a metaphor for luck vs. free will, as he carefully peels back the layers of denial which have caused Weller and Fonsia to wind up in the home, forgotten and alone.

Jones and Tyson are delightful as Weller and Fonsia – astounding, actually, when you recall how old they are. The Gin Game is well worth checking out.

Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, at the Public Theater has, alas closed. It was a brilliant comedy about a trailer trash family, meeting at a picnic area in a state park to do an intervention on their drug addict sister, named Barbara. In the first scene, they’re white trash; then, light out and up, and it’s the same family, only they’re black. Then it becomes something else entirely. I hope you got a chance to see this unique, most unusual comedy.

Still running at the Public Theater is Danai Gurira’s grim drama, Eclipsed, about 3 Liberian women who are in effect sex slaves to a warlord during that country’s civil war.

Although this is indeed grim, it’s a compelling story which needed to be told. The presence in the cast of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’O, as the youngest of the women, has drawn a lot of buzz to the play, which is transferring to Broadway in the spring for a limited run. I can’t see this catching on with the Broadway audience these days, which is not to say you should skip it when it reopens. The all-female cast is first rate (even though the Liberian accent they are doing makes about a quarter of what they are saying unintelligible).

AMAZING GRACE, a musical about the composer of that famous hymn, has closed at the Nederlander theatre. I caught one of the last performances and thought Arthur Giron’s and Christopher Smith’s book excellent, even though I understand not all of it is exactly historically correct, and Smith’s music/lyrics mighty fine. The problem with the show was the actor who played Our Anti-Hero, John Newton. He had a James Barbour quality baritone voice but was rather a stick in the acting department. The character is a dissolute rake who sees the Error of His Ways (he’s a slave trader) and, ultimately, finds redemption. Unless you believe in his torment, you can’t believe in his redemption. I don’t blame the actor as much as I blame the director, Gabriel Barre, who should have seen the problem and helped his guy find the darker colors in his role instead of letting him act like a rather arrogant frat boy. He was the only weak link, though, in the cast, which featured terrific performances by Erin Mackey as the woman who refuses to give up on the goodness inside John Newton, and Chuck Cooper as a family slave.

Nice try, but no cigar.

Rothschild & Sons, at the York Theatre Co., was a reworking of the Boch/Harnick/Yellen Broadway musical The Rothschilds, pared down to 90 minutes with a much smaller cast. The music was lovely, and the story very compelling, about how the Rothschild family went from rags to riches, and then used their financial clout to force Germany to eliminate its repressive anti-Jewish laws. Bob Cuccioli was, as you might expect, brilliant as the Rothschild pater familias. While I don’t think this new version will make The Rothschilds part of the musical theatre canon, still it was well-worth seeing.

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which premiered at the 2014 Humana Festival and which has just closed at Playwrights Horizons, was a fascinating play about what happens when the leader of a mega-church announces during Sunday service that God has told him that there is, in fact, no Hell, only Heaven. This causes a rift which splits the church in two and may cause the pastor his job and his marriage. Cleverly, Hnath presents his story straightforwardly, without the satirical scorn one might expect in a play about what Christopher Hitchens called “The God Delusion.” I found it very interesting, and one of the most unusual plays I have seen in quite a while.

Finally, Atlantic Theatre Co. presented a wonderful production of Caryl Churchill’s gender-bending comedy Cloud Nine, done very simply in the round on a bare stage. Men play men and women, as do women, and there’s even a white guy who plays a black house servant in the first act (and a gay cruiser in the second act), which is about a British family in Victorian colonial Africa as the natives are getting increasingly restless.

I hope you got a chance to see this fine production of one of the seminal plays of the late 20th Century.

FOOL FOR LOVE. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

OLD TIMES. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.roundaboutheatre.org or 212-719-1300

CLEVER LITTLE LIES. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

THE GIN GAME. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.             TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

BARBECUE. Public Theater. Alas, closed

ECLIPSED. Public Theater, 435 Lafayette St.

TICKETS: 212-967-7555

AMAZING GRACE. Nederlander Theatre. Alas, closed

ROTHSCHILD & SONS. York Theatre Co. Alas, closed

THE CHRISTIANS. Playwrights Horizons. Alas, closed

CLOUD NINE. Atlantic Theatre Co. Alas, closed 

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.com.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

                                                                                      — George F. Will


“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt